Martin Luther’s most dangerous moment


On 18 April, 1521, almost exactly 500 years ago, Martin Luther experienced what was probably the most dangerous moment of his entire life.

He had been asked to appear before the Holy Roman Emperor, the Spaniard Charles V, at the imperial Parliament (Diet) which had been called to meet at Worms, which was situated on the Upper Rhine, about 40 miles south of Frankfurt.

Luther’s teaching

In the previous four years there had been a number of attempts by key authorities in the Roman Church to convince Luther of the errors of his teaching that Christians are declared righteous by a holy God simply by faith alone in the crucified Christ. It was rightly understood by all who took part in the ensuing controversy that Luther’s views rendered much of the medieval system of piety utterly worthless. Charles had been given the authority to burn Luther at the stake if he refused to recant.

Luther first appeared before the emperor on 17 April. It would have be an awe-inspiring occasion with all of the German princes and nobles and their retinues as well as the emperor and his Spanish guard. Luther was presented with the 30 or so books he had written since 1517 and asked if he would renounce them.

It was an unusually diffident Luther who replied. He asked for 24 hours to consider his reply. This was granted and he appeared before Charles V again the following day, 18 April. When asked the same question as the day before, Luther’s diffidence was gone, swept away by his more usual boldness.

Luther’s response to the emperor

He told the emperor that his books fell into three categories: there were books of piety, like his marvellous The Freedom of a Christian (1520), and of course, he felt there was nothing wrong in those and how could he reject their teachings. Then there were those books in which he had criticised the papacy, and there was no way he was going to recant from such attacks, because the pope was wrong in maintaining views at odds with a plain reading of Scripture. And then there were books responding to those who had critiqued his attacks on the bishop of Rome. Again, he was not prepared to recant from anything in those, since they should not have defended such blatant errors, though he was sorry for the harshness of the tone of his attacks.

He then declared in words that have echoed down to the present-day: ‘Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.’

The significance of Luther’s words

Luther’s brave stand at Worms, face to face most likely with a fiery death, sealed the break with Rome of those who came to be called Protestants. It also decisively determined that the movement that followed in his train – Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, and even Anabaptist – would be a Biblicist one in which a spirituality of the word shaped its piety. And, though the Reformers did not realise it in their day, Luther standing before the most powerful prince in Europe with the Scriptures as his only armament set the tone for the church in the far future, when she cast the support of princes to the four winds and relied solely upon the Holy Spirit – solo Sancto Spiritu.

Michael Haykin

Michael Haykin is Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.

Photograph: Monument to Martin Luther in Wittenberg. Photograph by iStock.

Is evangelism to blame? A Buddhist critiques our lack of godliness


On the Speak Life Podcast, Paul Feesey and I have been discussing the various scandals rocking the evangelical world — particularly those of Ravi Zacharias and Jonathan Fletcher.

While some have questioned our focus on these topics (when we’re meant to be inspiring evangelism), one listener had the opposite observation. Writing as a Buddhist he had some blistering criticisms of the evangelical church – a critique which I think is very worth considering.

Observation and questions

First an observation:

‘Christians are preoccupied, perhaps even obsessed, with bringing others to Jesus. The amount of time, money, ingenuity, effort, and sacrifices Christians expend to convert others is truly astonishing. You pray for it, have conferences on how to do it, celebrate it when it’s successful, vow to keep trying when it isn’t, donate money for it. Even the many admirable projects Christians have to help the sick and marginalised often have a conversion agenda behind them.’

Then come the searching questions:

‘Could Christians suffer fewer scandals if they paid less attention to converting others and more to transforming themselves? Might their time be better spent teaching congregations to develop self-awareness than encouraging them to evangelise their neighbours? Could it even be that the imperative to convert others is really a subtle, unconscious strategy to avoid looking at oneself?’

The shoe does fit, a bit

When we consider that Ravi Zacharias leveraged his status as a world-renowned evangelist in order to spiritually and sexually abuse his victims, when we remember how he told victims that ‘millions of souls’ would be lost if they blew the whistle on his sins, when we note how many scandals are hushed up because ‘So-and-So is a good man, doing a good work’, the shoe does seem to fit – at least a bit. And what of the whole orientation of the evangelistically-driven Christian life? When all the focus is on winning the lost, what place is there for looking within?

Our Buddhist listener continued:

‘How did [Fletcher and Zacharias] get that way. I am sure they started out as devoted, sincere Christians, but I’m just as sure that the need to fulfil “the Great Commission” led them to start making compromises, then exaggerating, then becoming a good actor, then becoming blind to their personal issues – pride, lust for power, sexual desire, etc. They had no time to look at themselves; they were too busy planning how to save others.’

How do we react?

We might react defensively to such critique. After all, if we had a cure for cancer and did not devote our lives to sharing it, that would be the unbalanced and unloving approach. That’s true. But does our listener have a point? I think so.

I think we have muddled a number of different elements in our theologies of church, mission and the Christian life.

First, evangelists have been divorced from the church. What Ephesians 4:11 has brought together – the ‘evangelists’ and the ministry of the whole body – we have put asunder. We send evangelists away on their solo missions when they’re meant to equip the saints for an all-of-life, whole-of-body mission.

Second, we have divorced pastoring from evangelising, imagining that seeking lost sheep can happen apart from the feeding and protection of the flock.

Third, we divorce in our thinking and practice the ‘building of the church’ from the ‘reaching of the world’, when in reality the church is God’s evangelistic strategy. And fourth, we consider our job to be ‘gaining converts’ when, more fundamentally, we must ‘offer Christ’.

Pyramid scheme?

The church is not empty, seeking to suck the world in, we are full and must flow out! Yet if we never consider our ‘fullness’ in the Lord Jesus, we have nothing to give. We become a pyramid scheme with little to offer our new recruits, except the expansion of the scheme.

What our Buddhist listener was urging us towards is, in fact, what will fuel a truly healthy mission. It’s the inward (and, more importantly, upward) look that will set our hearts on fire with a contagious love for Christ. He is the centre, not evangelism.

Glen Scrivener

Glen Scrivener is director and evangelist with ‘Speak Life’ in Eastbourne, which trains Christians in personal evangelism, in person, in podcasts and videos.

Why do we disagree with X and call them heretics?


FINDING THE RIGHT HILLS TO DIE ON: 
The case for theological triage
By Gavin Ortlund
Crossway / TGC. 152 pages. £11.99
ISBN 978 1 433 567 421

This is a brilliant book on a vital subject. On which doctrinal hills are you prepared to die? Can we rank Christian doctrines from top-flight essentials through to disputable and insignificant?

I was taught – and have often quoted – the adage attributed to Augustine, or Meldenius, or various others: ‘In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity.’

But that only gives two categories: esssentials or non-essentials (sometimes called ‘adiaphora’). Gavin Ortlund says that won’t do; we need more categories. He proposes four:

• those that are essential to the gospel

• those that are urgent for the health and practice of the church

• those that are important to Christian theology

• those that are unimportant to our gospel ministry

He uses the analogy of medical triage, which he picked up from Albert Mohler. Faced with multiple casualties, how are the paramedics to know which patient must be treated first, and which can safely be treated later? There is an order of priorities, and so it is with our doctrines. He argues this Biblically, theologically and convincingly.

Ortlund does not claim to give all the answers (good thing too!), but he really helps with quotations from the Scriptures, and from Luther, Calvin, Baxter, Warfield, Gresham Machen, Packer, and others, to make us think about the issues where we may disagree with the church next door, or the Christian in the next chair, or our own pastor, or the Jehovah’s Witnesses … Why do we disagree with X and call them heretics? Why do we disagree with Y and call them fellow-Christians – yet in another denomination? Why do we disagree with Z and argue with them ferociously while remaining in the same fellowship? At what point do we need to separate? At what point do we need to stop fighting and join hands for the gospel? As a member of the Church of England, I found plenty of challenging food for thought!

He comments on areas of disagreement such as baptism, the Lord’s Supper, premillennialism, spiritual gifts, men’s and women’s ministry, creation, and others.

He urges us to stand firm and fight for the essentials with no compromise. But his principal aim is to stop us tearing at one another over doctrinal matters that are not at the heart of the gospel. His conclusion is a plea for humility. Towards the end, he addresses us: ‘Friends, the unity of the church was so valuable to Jesus that He died for it. If we care about sound theology, let us care about unity as well.’

This is really a stimulating book. And if you still need convincing, it has a Foreword by Don Carson, and it’s short.

James Dudley-Smith

James Dudley-Smith is Rector of St John’s and St Andrew’s, in Yeovil town centre, South Somerset

Photograph: Fellowship of Independent Evangelicals Churches.

Living with Alzheimer’s – a love story


By Robin Thomson

What is the most important thing we can do for the person living with Alzheimer’s, or other kinds of dementia? It’s easy to feel powerless or uncomfortable. ‘I don’t go to visit my grandmother in her care home,’ a young friend told me. ‘I don’t know how I can relate to her or help her.’

When my wife, Shoko, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2012, we had no clue what lay ahead. Later, when the disease really began to bite, we learned the hard way, as Shoko’s personality changed and she lost her capacity in many areas of life. Despite this her affection remained constant and it was a deeply spiritual journey. She died of heart failure in 2018.

Each person’s experience of dementia is different. But there are common questions. What can you do to help the person you are caring for and sustain yourself?

It is estimated that there are 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK, with 700,000 families providing an estimated £11.6bn worth of unpaid care. What resources are available to support this army of caregivers? They do it gladly but find it draining and sometimes overwhelming, as we did.

We received a lot of help, for which we were grateful. But we had to navigate our own way through systems that were not ‘joined up’.

Medical and social care

The first division was between medical and social care. Our medical team were kind, professional and always supportive. But when we asked about managing daily life, they pointed us elsewhere for social care.

Within social care we discovered a wide, and sometimes confusing, range of services on offer. It took a lot of work to find our way and there were times when we felt lost. Eventually we were put in touch with a team that gave us the right combination of medical excellence with personal and accessible care. This experience confirmed for me the vital place of a team like this, to enable people to go on living in the way that is best for them.

It also highlighted the support that family, friends and churches can give for those living with dementia and their caregivers.

Friends have a vital role. Caregivers can’t be left to respond by themselves. So friends need to be intentional in supporting them. They can give practical help across a range of areas, from food to financial matters, health issues, going for a walk, help with transport, and more. One of our friends turned up from time to time, bringing a complete meal which he left with us.

Friends give the gift of their time by keeping in touch, whether through visits or phone calls, letters or emails.

Don’t forget, stay away or give up

It isn’t always easy. Sometimes they may visit and find their old friend changed, perhaps not recognising them. Or even if she recognised them, she might not have engaged very much with them that day. If that is all that friends see, they may become discouraged and wonder if it is worthwhile to come again. But it is. It brings pleasure at the time, even if the person forgets soon after. And, crucially, it supports the caregivers too. If friends stop visiting, as sometimes happens when the dementia continues over a long period, the caregiver(s) can become isolated, especially if they have no other family.

Friends don’t forget. They don’t stay away. And they don’t give up.

What can churches do? Our local church supported us well. 9.30 on Sunday morning was a highlight of the week. Shoko might be struggling to find her glasses, looking through her handbag, trying to open the hymn book or Bible, not sure which was the right book. Sometimes she seemed sleepy. But she was always happy to be there and would greet our friends with a smile, whether she knew who they were or not.

People were kind and friendly, greeting us both with affection and warmth, talking to Shoko. It was an oasis for me as well: joining in the singing and prayers; listening to the Bible being taught with amazing relevance; being reassured by the concern of friends who understood something of our situation and were praying for us. Their practical support truly demonstrated the gospel and the support of a community of love and friendship – at a time when my faith was severely challenged.

At the same time I could see that many felt ill-equipped and unsure about how to relate to people living with dementia, and their families; what practical help they could offer; afraid, perhaps, of making mistakes.

Strange situations

Living with dementia, and caring for a person living with dementia, are strange situations. The disease may come in stages: sometimes not noticeable at all. There may still be a certain stigma to acknowledge it openly. At what point do we speak about it? There are no rules; like any relationship it needs our respect and sensitivity. But I believe we can be more open and intentional. When people clearly recognised our situation, and spoke to give support or ask how we were (and meaning it), I always found it encouraging, especially as they spoke to us both so warmly.

Practical help will depend on the situation. It isn’t always easy to ask for help, or, as mentioned, people may not be ready to acknowledge their situation. So it’s important for friends/the church to take some initiative and work out what they could do. Two actions that will almost certainly be welcome are organising a meal rota, as appropriate, and visiting at home. This could be to spend time with both, but it will often be most valuable to spend time with the person living with dementia, so that the caregiver can be free, perhaps to go out. It’s very common for the person living with dementia to be so dependent on them that they have little or no time for themselves. Giving them that time could be like gold.

Someone to talk to

Another important need for the caregiver is to have somebody they can talk to in confidence, to share their feelings and pray together. I met our vicar once every three weeks and it was a lifeline.

Some churches organise groups where people living with dementia and their carers can meet to talk, pray and sometimes worship together.

I have focussed here on the caregiver. The same principles apply for those living alone or in a care home. We can give them the same loving attention.

So what is the most important thing we can do? There are many practical things, as we have seen. But what I learned – rather slowly, rather late in the day – was that my most significant contribution was the way I related to Shoko.

‘Your body language is more important than what you say,’ our daughter told me many times, long before I understood it myself.

It was true. If the tone of my voice was impatient, or if I hustled Shoko to sit down, or get up, or go out, she found it distressing. Sometimes it made her cry. ‘Why are you so cross with me?’ But if I spoke softly, or held out an encouraging hand, the rewarding smile warmed me more than I deserved.

Of course, maintaining a loving relationship isn’t automatic. There is a lot to learn. But it’s not a technique, just friendliness and warmth.

Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia can be fearsome and mysterious. But we don’t need to be afraid. The persons affected by them are still persons and we just go on relating with love and attention.

Robin Thomson

Robin Thomson is the author of Living with Alzheimer’s – a Love Story, published by Instant Apostle. www.instantapostle.com/books/living-with-alzheimers/

Photograph: Photo by David Matos on Unsplash

Waking up to the dystopian world of deepfakes


Want to see Tom Cruise perform a magic trick, joke about ex-presidents, or tee-off?

Posted without any explanation on social media platform TikTok by @deeptomcruise the clips became instant viral videos, with over 10million views in the first week. Only, they weren’t Tom. These deepfakes were highly praised by forensics experts, and pose significant challenges not just for our world, but for gospel witness. Imagine watching ‘unseen footage’ of Billy Graham sharing doubts about Christ as the only way to the Father?

Twitter asks us: ‘What’s happening?’ Facebook prefers: ‘What’s on your mind?’ Instagram and TikTok shun text and do not bother with a question, with their + icons urging people to add visual content. Videos are compelling, believable in a way that a line of text can never be. For a ‘people of the book’, perhaps the undermining of videos could prove subversively useful if it increases trust in written materials as a result.

Going deeper

The Tom Cruise deepfakes are the work of a Belgian visual-effects specialist, receiving acclaim from forensics experts. Some are fun, like his Einstein’s coronavirus advice, whereas Channel 4’s Queen’s Speech was more divisive, with 200 complaints to Ofcom.

Be prepared to encounter far more authoritative and persuasive videos of renowned figures that are nothing more than actors wearing hi-tech masks, not a million miles away from those Cruise used at the turn of the millennium. I’m afraid it’s now Mission: Possible, Tom.

So how is it done? The two steps are simple if you have the right software. First, gather as much visual content of the subject from multiple angles. Secondly, give the software a couple of weeks, depending on processing power and volume of footage, to learn the person’s face and mannerisms through two Artificial Intelligence networks: one AI practices painting Rembrandt by numbers, so to speak, until the other cannot tell the artwork is a forgery.

Deepfakes will undoubtedly be used to challenge security, undermine democracy, and disrupt the church, leading eventually to changes to the law. The concept and practice of deepfakes is actually not that new but, on the evidence above, they will become undetectable – conjuring up Hollywood-esque dystopias.

Biblical duplicity?

The apostle Paul was not immune to accusation and the charge against him at Corinth was duplicity: presenting as bullish and forceful in written communication, but insipid when face-to-face (2 Cor. 10:1, 10). In a stunning offensive in chapters 10 to 13, Paul dismantles the rhetoric of those who had built reputations for themselves as ‘super-apostles’ by using the same devices against them with lashings of irony. He destroys the argument rooted in human comparison by elevating it to the divine; in God’s presence all of our pretences are exposed. We as Christians are not to base judgment on appearance (v.7) or fight with the weapons of the world (v.3). Rather, the echo of Isaiah’s servant of the Lord rings through, who ‘will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears’ but will act through righteousness, faithfulness and justice (Isa.11:3-5).

Would Paul turn out to be the fake that some claimed? On his return, Paul confirms that his actions will match his words, and there will be no room for doubt (2 Cor. 10:11).

Sorry, not sorry

A commentator noted that we ‘don’t have to be scared of deepfakes […] At least now you know it exists, and you know you shouldn’t believe what you see.’ Yet cynicism and suspicion do not map well against ‘life in all of its abundance’ (John 10:10). Perhaps the most powerful yearning through the Covid pandemic has been for a return to face-to-face interaction. It’s the messy space where relationships are tested, words followed through with action, and where we live out the ‘one-anothers’ of gospel community – a sphere that deepfakes cannot touch.

For theological colleges, the current tech trends should reinforce our intent to open the book, begin to apply our theology, and share ‘not just the gospel, but our lives as well’ as we live it out amongst students and staff (1 Thess. 2:8).

Andy du Feu

Andy is the Executive Director at Moorlands College. He lectures on a breadth of subjects on the BA, and teaches a specialist MA module in digital communication. www.moorlands.ac.uk

From a Muslim family in a Buddhist community to Christian ministry in Wales


THE CAPTAIN COMMANDED ME, “FULL SPEED
AHEAD”. THIS IS MY TRUE STORY
By 
S. Nisamdeen
Published via Amazon. 220 pages. £12.95
ISBN 979 8 681 669 401

Not many people start their lives as Muslim in Sri-Lanka and eventually settle in a small Welsh town. Not many people travel 25,000 miles overland in Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Not many people become helmsmen piloting large ships all over the world. Not many people start their lives born in to a Muslim family in a Buddhist community and become Christians. The author of this book, S. Nisamdeen, fits all these categories.

Nisam was born in Sri-Lanka, in a small Buddhist village to a fairly prosperous Muslim family who ran a local shop and also owned property. But when he came of age Nisam decided that there was no future for him in the village and decided to travel. On this first journey he travelled right across India, across several other countries and ended up in Frankfurt. He soon decided that he had made a mistake and returned home. But before long the travel bug bit again, and he left home never to return, except for holiday visits.

On-board ship

This time he again flew to India, travelled across India by train and then journeyed by bus through Pakistan, through the Khyber Pass to Afghanistan and to Khorramshahr, then a major port in Iran. There he sought work and found a junior position as a kitchen assistant on a small ship. After six months, he joined another ship belonging to same shipping company. Nisam was acting as watchman, and he quickly demonstrated an ability to find people to befriend and look after him. All went well for a while, and then he joined a large fishing trawler as an engine-room worker. Unfortunately one of the crew was killed in an accident in the Persian gulf while fishing, which caused the crew to return to land leaving just Nisam and the French engineer. They were there for three months before being collected by the captain. This would have been bearable except that the engineer would get drunk and try to kill Nisam – who quickly found all the suitable hiding places on board. A complication then was that his Iranian visa had expired, so when he applied for an exit visa he had to go to court. He didn’t have the money to pay the fine, but the judge paid it for him. Already God was looking after Nisam.

To cut a long story short, his next job was on a larger Greek merchant ship, again in the engine room. But the chief engineer took a dislike to Nisam so he started working as a steward. But then he was asked to substitute for a sick helmsman and this led eventually to him becoming a full-time helmsman – hence the title of the book. Eventually the ship arrived in Liverpool – where he was refused permission to land. But Nisam wanted to travel further, and managed to get a position with a larger Greek shipping company. The company flew him to Hong Kong to join their large ocean sailing ship; he travelled worldwide, the St Lawrence Seaway making a big impression on him. While in Duluth, typically, he was befriended by a woman who drove him sightseeing and also gave him a puppy he named ‘America’. Unfortunately, he lost his adoring dog in the port of Durban. In Basra, Iraq he was befriended by a local doctor and in Durban he was befriended by a businessman. In Rotterdam Nisam’s career as a helmsman ended as his contract with the shipping company expired, but even more unusual events were to come.

Go to Denmark

At an isolated bus stop two men appeared from nowhere and told Nisam he had to go to Denmark. He ignored this for some time, and went to France, where once again people befriended him for no apparent reason, and then to Belgium.

Eventually ‘Denmark’ came into his mind, and he soon felt he must go there. In Copenhagen friendship led to him travelling from Copenhagen to Hjørring, northern Denmark. There, while asleep in a hotel he dreamed of two angels carrying him in the sky, which was traumatic. Later that evening as he was looking for a restaurant or pub, he was invited into a building which turned out to be a church where a prayer meeting was in progress. He was given a meal and the pastor invited him to stay with his family. They also gave him the name of a pastor in Copenhagen, with whom Nisam made contact when he returned there. Nisam was made welcome at the Elim church and began attending meetings regularly. And he began to hear the words of the Bible, though at this stage he did not understand much. Unfortunately, Nisam accidentally outstayed his visa so it was not renewed. However, it was in Denmark that he became a Christian. He then went to Wiesbaden, Germany, staying at the Christian Teen Challenge Centre and taking part in Christian activities including visits to the local American army camp – which should not have been possible.

After a while he decided to return to sea, but God had other plans for him. He was invited to go to Calcutta with a missionary from the Centre. While in Calcutta he was taken seriously ill, but out of the blue God provided a man to take him to hospital, and he recovered. He spent some time in Calcutta helping the Christian team there and visited the Mother Theresa hospice. The next stop was at a Bible college in Bangalore though he did not complete the course. He had decided to return to Iran and find another job on a ship.

The trip involved being smuggled across the Iranian border, since it was shortly after the Iranian revolution in 1979. Again, God had His hand on Nisam. He arrived safely in Tehran despite being stopped by revolutionary guards, but was advised not to go to Khorramshahr because soldiers were everywhere and there might no longer be any shipping companies. In Tehran he stayed with two Christian friends he had met in Bangalore, and after a while he decided to head for Europe. So to Europe, but first stop Izmir, Turkey. While there he looked at an address book he had been given in Germany. An address in Belgrade had a mark against it. So there he went. Belgrade was then in Yugoslavia. Once again Nisam was made welcome by a local couple, and he spent some time accompanying them in their missionary work. After a while, following rejection of another application for a Danish visa, Nisam began to lose heart. He records: ‘I prayed to God that I was fed up with all this and to stop messing about with me’. However, he also records: ‘My words came from my mouth although not from my heart’.

Now God spoke to Nisam through the couple he was living with. One day they said to him: ‘Nisam, we have good news for you. God has spoken to us! This is true, Nisam. You must believe it is the true word of God. God has a plan for you. He has a nation and a family for you and you must not be afraid because He is still with you and He will never let you down.’ They then gave him a plane ticket to England and some money, and also the name and address of the principal of Mattersey Bible College, near Doncaster.

Newtown

This time there were no visa problems whatsoever, either when entering the country, or in getting it renewed several times. Nisam spent some time studying at Mattersey, and one summer was invited to join a group who were visiting Newtown, Powys. The following year he returned to Newtown to gain knowledge under the leadership and guidance of God. He stayed in the homes of numerous families and took part in many church activities from preaching to cleaning. At the same time as Nisam arrived in Newtown, so did a family from Lancashire. In due course Nisam married their daughter. He had various jobs, and eventually trained and worked as a psychiatric nurse, obtaining an honours degree at North East Wales Institute (now Glyndwr University). He still lives in Newtown, having recently retired from the NHS, and now spends a good deal of time as a volunteer pastoral assistant at the local Anglican church. Not bad for someone who as a boy never did well at school.

This summary can only touch on Nisam’s many adventures. What is very evident throughout the book, though, is the way God was leading and caring for Nisam on his journey. And as he ends the book: ‘I humbly continue faithfully to face what He may bring me tomorrow, as the Captain (God) commands me “Full Speed Ahead”.’

How the faith of the Chibok girls sustained them


A new book, Bring Back Our Girlsby journalists Joe Parkinson and Drew Hinshaw, is based on hundreds of interviews with the students kidnapped in northern Nigeria in April 2014. In the following extracts, a little of how the faith of some of the girls enabled them to resist pressure to convert to Islam – even under the threat of death – is revealed. But we begin as the kidnappings themselves are taking place…

PROLOGUE – 2014

Michelle Obama was upstairs in the White House residential quarters, watching the morning news report a story of suffering and social media and wondering whether to Tweet. It was 7 May 2014, an overcast Wednesday in Washington, and all the major breakfast shows were leading with the same harrowing tale. Thousands of miles away, in a remote Nigerian town called Chibok, 276 schoolgirls had been kidnapped from their dormitory on the night before their final exams. They’d been dozing on bunk beds, studying notes, or reading the Bible by torch. They were high-school seniors, a few hours of test questions from graduating as some of the only educated young women in an impoverished region where most girls never learned to read. Then a group of militants barged in, bundled them onto trucks, and sped into the forest. The students had become captives of a little-known terrorist group called Boko Haram, which filled its ranks by abducting children. Now these girls were trapped in a ghastly, faintly understood conflict far away, hostage to unambiguous evil.

A DAY SHORT OF THREE YEARS LATER – 2017

The lawyer entered the first car of a convoy that rattled north over a dusty road, passing deserted farmland and the charred mudbrick walls of villages whose few remaining residents were too old to leave. Outside the window lay fallow fields, overlain with discarded tools and an upside-down rust-coated wheelbarrow.

The area was notorious for land mines and roadside bombs. Each driver steered carefully into the tread marks left by the car in front, their bumpers mounted with fluttering Red Cross flags. The lawyer told himself there was nothing to fear: ‘The prayers of the orphans will protect you.’ His car halted, and its flashing brake lights signalled the convoy behind to stop. Fighters in fatigues, their heads wrapped in turbans, were gathered on the other side of the dirt road, standing alert beside waist-high grass. In the branches of acacia trees, and crouching behind bushes, the lawyer could see other figures, training their rifles. He held his list, the silence broken by the warning chime of a Toyota door left ajar. In the distance he could see a snaking line of silhouettes, dozens of women wrapped in dark, floor-length hooded shrouds billowing in the breeze. They were stepping through long grasses flanked by armed men. The figures looked exhausted, each trudging awkwardly toward him. Two of them were walking on crutches, and one was missing her left leg below the knee. Another had her arm draped in a sling. One carried a baby boy on her back. These were the students that millions had Tweeted about, then forgotten, but none of them had any idea about the social media campaign, and they lacked the faintest notion that anybody except their parents had been advocating for their release. These schoolgirls, almost all Christians, had come of age in captivity. To keep their friendships and faith, they had whispered prayers together at night, or into cups of water, and memorised Bible passages in secret. At risk of beatings and torture, they had softly sung gospel songs, fortifying each other with a hymn from Chibok: ‘We, the children of Israel, will not bow.’

The women, 82 in all, walked onto the road and halted opposite the lawyer, huddling into two lines, staring ahead with their eyes fixed. Some linked arms, others squeezed hands, their baggy clothes concealing the few possessions they’d managed to accumulate, strips of coloured fabric and small twigs for pinning their hair. One of the women was trailing behind, dressed in a grey shroud and walking with a slight hunch. Tied around her thigh, hidden from view, was something the men with guns had never found, an article of defiance. It was a secret diary, filling three notebooks, a firsthand record of the women’s ordeal. Her name was Naomi Adamu. It was her 1,118th morning in captivity.

CHIBOK – THREE YEARS EARLIER, 14 APRIL 2014

The class of 2014 at the Chibok Government Secondary School for Girls were only four weeks from finishing senior year when almost 300 of them were seized by armed men and packed onto pickup trucks that disappeared into the night.

At 24, Naomi Adamu was one of the oldest, a student who had prayed and fasted more times than she could count to get through high school. Petite, with a teardrop-shaped face and slender arched eyebrows she liked to outline with an angled brush, she was known to her younger classmates as Maman Mu, Our Mother.

NORTHEAST NIGERIA – 15 APRIL 2014, A FEW HOURS INTO CAPTIVITY

Jammed into the middle of a truck bed close to the front of a large convoy, Naomi could see the faces of her captors only when the headlight beams caught their features. There were dozens of gunmen perched on the front and sides of each vehicle, holding rifles.

The men wore musty, mismatched uniforms—military camouflage shirts, police-unit trousers—some with turbans covering their faces, others with nothing more than ordinary clothes and a gun. Many of them appeared to be boys, barely teenagers, wiry and sporting wispy attempts at facial hair. The acrid smell of body odour hung over the truck. There are so many, you couldn’t spit without hitting one, Naomi thought.

A HIDDEN ENCAMPMENT IN NIGERIA’S SAMBISA FOREST – LATE APRIL, ABOUT 14 DAYS INTO CAPTIVITY

A tall, muscular figure in military fatigues and a black turban stood before the Chibok girls and held up two books, a Qur’an in one hand and in the other, a Bible. This man looked different from the more bedraggled fighters who had taken them from their school. He had a lighter complexion; his beard was neatly trimmed, and the top and bottom halves of his uniform matched and appeared freshly laundered. Several fighters flanked him on each side, carrying rifles and standing beside yellow jerricans. Across his waist, he had tied a belt stuffed with bullets, and a small gun hung strapped to his thigh. He scanned the crowd, then recited the opening words of the Qur’an, his long fingers wrapped around both holy books, as if to weigh them against each other. Naomi was watching him, wedged into a throng of more than 200 classmates seated cross-legged or on their knees atop a patch of dirt. It was midmorning and the sun was burning. At first, she couldn’t follow the Arabic phrases he was reciting, but as he switched into the language of Hausa, she understood. Jesus was a prophet, the man said, but not the son of God, and to say so was a blasphemy so enormous that it made the heavens shake. He had once been a Christian himself, he explained, but had converted to Islam when he accepted that the Qur’an was the final revelation. The state of Nigeria was an abomination, he said, and Boko Haram were the only ones fighting for ‘the true Islam’, the only ones who were prepared to die to honour Allah. ‘Take a look at yourselves,’ he asked, his eyes narrowing in anger. ‘Don’t you know going to school is forbidden?’

The girls stayed silent as the man paused. He had not introduced himself, but they had been told they would be addressed by Aliyu, Shekau’s Emirul Jesh, or military chief, an extremist so fanatical he made even the other guards nervous. On YouTube, Aliyu had once appeared unmasked, executing prisoners with an axe.

Aliyu lowered his voice and addressed the young women directly. ‘I have come here to offer you a choice,’ he said. ‘You can convert to the true Islam, join us, and please God. Or you will be executed.’ The ultimatum hung heavy over the crowd of hungry, exhausted, disoriented young women. Some panicked. Naomi saw several bodies in front of her collapse and begin convulsing in a violent fit.

Aliyu was screaming now to make himself heard over the hostages, working himself into a rage. ‘If you don’t convert, you are an infidel! We will starve you, then remove your head from your body,’ he said. ‘I swear by Allah that any one of you who refused to convert to Islam, I will have her beheaded.’ One by one, students begged him: Yes! Yes, they would convert if it would spare their lives. Naomi said nothing. Then she turned to her cousin, in a whisper. ‘He is playing a game with us,’ she said. ‘We must hold our ground.’

LATE MAY 2014 – SIX WEEKS INTO CAPTIVITY

Naomi dragged herself to her feet, her clothes, hair, and skin soaked with rain, and followed her classmates as they gathered for the first of the day’s five [Islamic] prayers. It was the third week of May, and the rainy season had arrived over the Sambisa Forest.

Each day, they were learning to clean their bodies in a special sequence before worship; washing hands, mouth, noses, and arms in ablutions monitored by their guards. This was part of becoming a good Muslim, the men would say. The hostages would sit on their legs, raise their palms to the sky, then bend forward. But as she went through the motions, Naomi told herself that she wasn’t going to perform the ritual with conviction. ‘We should just pretend,’ she told her cousin Saratu. ‘Not take it for real.’

As the daily Islamiyah classes ground into their third month, Naomi had found herself sitting next to a girl she had only vaguely known … Lydia John had been such a diligent student that she would fall asleep with a book in her lap. At home, her mother, Rebecca, would check on her near midnight to turn off the lamp and close what was often a Bible. Lydia had arrived in Chibok at the start of her senior year, fleeing her hometown of Banki, near the border with Cameroon, after an attack by Boko Haram, and in her new school she immediately rose to the top of the class.

Lydia began to confide in Naomi during class and under the tamarind tree, leaning into the older classmate for moral support. The two talked about music, church, and the gospel singer Mama Agnes. Lydia told Naomi that before she moved to Chibok, she had been a prayer warrior at her church.

One day after lessons, when they were back behind the fence under the tamarind, Lydia said she wanted to tell Naomi a secret. She checked to be sure nobody was looking, then carefully opened the cover of her blue exercise book and began to slowly flick through the pages. Naomi watched as the mostly blanks toward the front gave way to pages covered in wide-looped handwritten English. She pulled the notebook from Lydia’s hands and began to read, her eyes following each curl of the hidden script. It was a written record of their ordeal, starting from the night of April 14. Lydia was writing a diary. ‘You must write one too,’ she said to Naomi.

Soon after, a small club of secret diarists began huddling together in the afternoon shade. They shared paper and pens and ideas about how to tell their story. Naomi would sometimes write and sometimes dictate her reflections to Lydia, who wrote them in her rounded handwriting …

At first they wrote about the kidnapping, disjointed and fragmented recollections from their journey into the forest and the terror of their first weeks in captivity. As weeks dragged on, however, other material went into the pages. They copied passages from a small Bible one of the teenagers had stashed in her clothing on the night of their abduction. One schoolmate would ask for permission to go to the bathroom so she could find a bush to crouch behind and copy the verses. She would return with a shorthand-replicated section. A popular choice was Luke, chapter 2, verses 1 to 20, the story of Mary giving birth. Several of the girls memorised it as a way to pass the time. They copied the Book of Job, the Biblical account of a man tested with endless suffering who refused to renounce his faith. Sometimes they wrote down psalms: ‘Oh my God, I keep calling by day and You do not answer. And by night, and there is no silence on my part.’

GWOZA, NIGERIA – THE FIRST WEEK OF AUGUST 2014, FOUR MONTHS INTO CAPTIVITY

Naomi stepped through a high-framed doorway and into the hallway of an enormous white mansion, surrounded by towering walls, and entered through a black iron gate. Dozens of her classmates were already inside, exploring the cavernous interior of an eight-bedroom villa, their flip-flops smacking against a cool tiled floor that reflected the light from a vaulted ceiling. This vast empty property, far larger than any house in Chibok, was to be the captives’ new prison. Naomi had no idea where they were or why they’d been brought to this place. In the first week of August, almost four months after their kidnapping, the Chibok students had again been spirited away by their captors. Roused before dawn under the tamarind, they had been ordered to walk for hours …

The Chibok students had been taken into what had become Boko Haram’s new capital. They were in the city of Gwoza, a centuries-old grid of low-slung homes on neem tree-shaded dirt roads centred around the ornate palace of the emir, the traditional ruler whose family had governed the town since the 1980s.

Aliyu, the militant leader who had first addressed the girls in their earliest days of captivity, threatening to decapitate unbelievers, was now seated on a chair in the living room of the mansion, giving a long speech about the evils of government schools, which he claimed taught ‘lesbianism,’ a word he said in English with emphatic disgust. As he concluded, he declared that some of the girls were already too old to remain single. It was time for these women to be married. If they agreed, they would be rewarded with a luxurious home of their own and all the meat they could eat, but if they didn’t, he warned, they would be among the first of the Chibok girls to become ‘slaves’.

SOME TIME LATER

Malam Ahmed was standing on the veranda of the … house, waiting for a conversation with Naomi. He had a proposal for her that he said she should take extremely seriously. The hostages were not going back home, ever, and the most senior of them should do the correct thing and marry. If Naomi got married, it would please Allah, help her on the road to salvation, and be an example to her younger peers. The Malam started with a sales pitch. ‘If you get married, you will have access to air-conditioned vehicles and luxury houses,’ he said. The unmarried women would become slaves, he continued, and their meagre rations would be cut even further. Naomi said nothing at first. The Malam had been smiling through stained teeth, advising her to make a decision that would ‘please God’. A refusal would have consequences, he warned, and they would be unimaginably severe. If she didn’t marry, he wouldn’t be able to protect her from the guards and their animal instincts. ‘There are seven guards … We will have to lock the gate and release them on you.’

Naomi had heard this kind of violent threat before. She could see that the Malam was struggling to find an argument that would intimidate her into submission. She responded with a suck of her teeth: ‘You can do whatever you want, since it is not with our consent.’ The body language between the two tightened. ‘Maybe you should bring 20?’ she added. Malam Ahmed pushed on, but he was losing face. He began to yell. The argument was growing louder on the veranda. A cluster of students filed over to watch as the usually composed Malam Ahmed erupted in anger at this diminutive young woman. At one point, loud enough for dozens of schoolgirls to hear, Naomi herself started to shout: ‘Even if heaven and earth come together, I will not marry!’ She clapped her hands to emphasise her resolve. But she could feel her heart galloping.

Malam Ahmed looked stunned, as if he had been slapped hard around the face. He was about to abandon his self-control. ‘I will kill you.’ he replied. ‘If you kill me, I don’t mind. No problem.’ Malam Ahmed lifted his Kalashnikov in the air and slammed it down onto Naomi’s back. The rifle butt hit the curve of her neck, lacerating the skin. Her knees buckled and her face collapsed in pain. She managed to stay on her feet, but the strike would leave a permanent scar. ‘God will judge you,’ she said. Malam Ahmed stormed off.

Reproduced with permission from Bring Back Our Girls – The Astonishing Survival and Rescue of Nigeria’s Missing Schoolgirls – by Joe Parkinson and Drew Hinshaw. Published 18 March 2021, by Swift Press.

Photograph: Naomi Adamu, the Chibok student who led resistance among the women to their Boko Haram captors | photo: Mohammed Bukar

Are there more Dead Sea Scrolls yet to be discovered


In 1947 three Bedouin boys were herding their sheep and goats near the Dead Sea when they discovered the first of what became known as the Qumran caves. In the cave were ten jars, mostly empty, but one of which contained three leather scrolls. A later trip retrieved even more scrolls from the cave. What they had discovered were only the first of many ancient Jewish manuscripts that had been hidden in the caves during Roman times.

25,000 fragments

Between 1947 and 1956, as archaeologists became involved, about 25,000 fragments were retrieved from 11 different caves in the area. They probably represent a library of 900 complete scrolls. Many of them record the religious teachings of a Jewish sect who lived in the desert, but almost every book of the Hebrew Bible is found among them.

Hidden from the Romans

The books were all hidden among these caves around 68AD when the Romans were engaged in an aggressive campaign against a Jewish rebellion. The remarkable microclimate of the region was the secret to the scrolls’ survival. Near the lowest point on earth, sparsely populated and with its dry, low humidity environment, it was a perfect place to preserve manuscripts. Had they been hidden in the highlands around Jerusalem or Hebron they would have quickly disintegrated. Instead, they survived 2,000 years, making the Biblical books among them a thousand years older than the earliest Hebrew Scriptures that had been available to scholars. The scrolls demonstrate the reliability of the Jewish and Christian copying traditions that we have relied upon for the Biblical text that we have today.

The Dead Sea Scrolls that have been retrieved, published and housed in the Shrine of the Book in Israel clearly don’t represent all the scrolls that had originally been hidden. No doubt many circulate on the dubious antiquities market, are hidden in private collections, or were found and destroyed long ago.

The search goes on

However, a search of the wilderness goes on. In 2017 a 12th cave was discovered. Empty scroll jars and discarded pickaxes indicated the cave had been looted decades ago. In the years since then the Israeli Antiquities Authority has embarked on a detailed survey of over 500 caves in the region in a race against time against looters. The scrolls announced in March 2021 are Greek fragments of Zechariah and Nahum. They date to the second century and were probably hidden during the Bar Kochba revolt in 132–136AD. This makes them slightly later than the more famous Dead Sea Scrolls but still very ancient Biblical texts.

It is estimated that a further 25% of the Judean wilderness is to be surveyed and all the signs are that more scrolls are likely to be found. Watch this space!

Chris Sinkinson

Chris Sinkinson is a Lecturer in Theology at Moorlands College.

New insights into John Stott’s life


JOHN STOTT:  
Pastor, Leader and Friend (2nd edition) 
By Christopher J.H. Wright, Lindsay Brown, et 
al (Editor Julia Cameron) 
Dictum Press. £6.99 
ISBN 978 1 838 097 219

This excellent collection of short portraits of John Stott, expanded and updated from the 2012 original, coincides with the 100th anniversary of his birth.

The aim is to ‘bring new insights into the life of John Stott and the ministries founded and fostered by him’ (pp. ix-x). But this is not merely of historical concern. As one of the most significant global evangelical leaders of the last 100 years, we all have much to learn from his life and ministry.

There is a great variety of contributors and topics, but each has the vividness of being painted in the months following JS’s death in 2011, while the collection benefits from a reflective distance.

Easily read in an hour or two, it opens up the story of Stott’s life and his remarkable contribution, under God, in five parts.

Part I focuses on ‘John Stott the man.’ The testimony of Frances Whitehead (his secretary of more than 50 years) to his authentic faith and godly example is one significant note amongst many.

Part II turns to ‘John Stott: Anglican Evangelical,’ demonstrating his concern for global and local Anglicanism, and his greater concern for the gospel and the glory of Christ without regard to denomination.

Part III looks at his ‘Global interdenominational ministry,’ including his service to the student world, pivotal involvement in Lausanne, passion for whole life discipleship, and seminal role in A Rocha. The breadth testifies to Stott’s concern for full-orbed Christian maturity, as well as to his energy and discipline.

Part IV brings ‘Voices from around the world,’ with contributions on subjects as varied as personal Bible reading and cultural engagement. Striking again is repeated testimony of the impact of Stott’s friendship and servant-leadership.

Some key books keep being mentioned: Basic ChristianityThe Cross of ChristIssues Facing Christians Today, and  Your Mind Matters. All are classics that all should read. And some key themes from Stott’s life recur: his humility, godly example, authenticity, clarity of thinking and generosity in listening, his friendships across generations and cultures, preaching and teaching, commitment to the Scriptures and to the cause of Christ.

The collection does not encourage a search for a successor. But everyone will find here much for which to give thanks, and much from which to learn.

James Robson

James Robson is Ministry Director for Keswick Ministries

Can Christians use their conscience in secular jobs?


For some public commentators on religion, the moral to the recent court judgment that went against ex-magistrate Richard Page is that taking religious zeal into one’s secular occupation does no favours for the Christian cause.

At the Court of Appeal, Richard Page’s legal team failed to overturn the Employment Appeal Tribunal judgment that upheld his sacking for forthrightly contradicting the assertion in the social worker’s report for a same-sex adoption case that same-sex couples make better adoptive parents than straight couples.

In line with his Christian faith, he contradicted this by stating that: ‘it was in the best interests of a child to be brought up by a mother and father.’

The media ‘shell game’ has been to focus narrowly on Page’s position, which the chairman of the panel of magistrates called ‘an incident of extreme and overt prejudice’. Yet this was merely Page’s counter to the social worker’s assertion that same-sex couples make better adoptive parents than straight couples.

The social worker’s assertion may well align with some studies, such as the one conducted by Cambridge University’s Centre for Family Research (https://www.cam.ac.uk/ research/news/ive-got-two-dads-and-they-adopted-me) which researched 130 adoptive families. However, all such studies have been hampered by unrepresentatively small sample sizes: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/ 10.1080/01494929.2015.1033317.

This relegates the social worker’s assertion about the superiority of same-sex adoptive parents to just another philosophical belief (i.e. ideology) alongside Richard Page’s own philosophical belief.

Quite frankly, I’m surprised that some religious commentators on this case have paid so little attention to the flaws in studies of lesbian and gay parenting, which undermine the social worker’s bold assertion

One wonders if their reluctance to support Page publicly is motivated by belief that to do otherwise would land them on the ‘wrong side of history’.

Certainly, there has been a long line of unsuccessful legal appeals on grounds of religious freedom. These include McFarlane v Relate Avon Ltd (declining to counsel same-sex couples on sexual matters), Ladele v Islington Council (declining to officiate at civil partnership registrations), Chaplin v Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust (wearing a cross), Kuteh v Dartford and Gravesham NHS Trust (offering prayer).

Page’s case is different in that the original tribunal did not consider his publicly expressed belief to be religious, but to fall ‘within the definition of philosophical belief for the purposes of EqA, s10’. This was because it did not pass the ‘sufficiently close and direct nexus’ test for religious belief.

Concerning ‘best interests of the child’, the legal doctrine evolved from the parens patriae (parent of the country) role of the monarch and, by extension, feudal lords and courts: http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/100845/1/ Parental_Decision_Making_AUCKLAND_ and_GOOLD.pdf

In the UK, the case of Portsmouth Hospitals NHS Trust v Wyatt (2005) comprehensively settled the law on ‘best interests’. Contrary to popular notions, ‘best interests’ doctrine, as laid down in that case, does not preclude conscience, intuition or hunches:

‘Where a clinician concluded that a requested treatment was inimical to the best interests of the patient, and his professional conscience, intuition or hunch, confirmed that view, he might refuse to act and could not be compelled to do so, though he should not prevent another from so acting, should another clinician feel able to do so.’

For a lay magistrate, who is not required to be legally qualified, but (as laid down by the Lord Chancellor in 1998) is to ‘bring a broad experience of life to the bench’, then that must include scope for applying personal conscience and moral intuition to decide what’s in the ‘best interests’ of children.

The insistence that Page made a solemn oath that his ‘actions as a magistrate will be free from any political, racial, sexual or other bias’ is notwithstanding the settled law in Portsmouth Hospitals NHS Trust v Wyatt that ‘best interests’ decisions can engage the ‘conscience, intuition or hunch’ ‘albeit honed by experience’.

If it is right for Richard Page to be sacked for his contradictory stance that ‘it is in the best interests of a child to be brought up by a mother and father’, then it is also right for social workers to be removed for expressing the unsubstantiated pro-LGBT ideology that ‘same-sex couples make better adoptive parents than straight couples’.

It’s sheer hypocrisy to condemn the former, while conniving at the latter.

David Shepherd

David Shepherd is an active member of Beacon Community Church in Camberley and was formerly a Deanery Synod Representative in the Diocese of Guildford.